Guest post by Sara Megibow: being a feminist romance reader

Late one evening, when I’d just finished writing my post on being a feminist romance novelist, I was chatting with friends on Twitter when a tweet by agent Sara Megibow from the Nelson Agency popped up. I don’t remember exactly what it said, but she emphatically said that a woman can be a feminist and still love to read romance novels.

Since it was a subject that had been on my mind, I replied and soon we had a little conversation going. She’s very kindly agreed to share her thoughts here.

Sara MegibowIn my experience, here’s what happens:

Me, “I represent literary fiction” (true.)
Person, “OH, anyone I’ve read?”

Me, “I represent science fiction and fantasy novels” (true)
Person, “Hmmm…like the Hobbit?

Me, “I represent romance novels” (true)
Person, “Good grief, WHY? Aren’t they all just smut or porn?”

This conversation is about the same if I tell someone, “I read literary fiction”, “I read science fiction” and “I read romance.” My immediate reaction is always to feel hurt when someone says “WHY” – I mean whether I’m talking about my career or what I enjoy reading for pleasure, I say “romance” and someone says “blech.” I feel hurt. And mad. And then…defensive.

Over the years, I’ve come up with any number of responses to people when they give me heck. By now, I’ve narrowed my response down to one sentence, “I love romance novels because as a feminist with a women’s studies degree, I find the genre to be inherently pro-woman.” Now, THAT generates a great conversation! And, it’s true. The basic tenants of the genre – happy endings, healthy relationships and great sex are all pro-woman.

Romance as a genre is formulaic (as is science fiction, as is fantasy, as is young adult fiction, etc.). One of the tenants of the romance genre is that a story will have a happy ending. In this case, it “usually” means “the girl gets the guy” (or the girl gets the girl). Now, as a woman – what on earth is there about that premise that could possibly be offensive? As a woman, I celebrate happy, healthy, full-filling relationships!

So then, people come back with, “well, what if a woman doesn’t want a relationship – what if her career is more important than marriage?” First, I snicker because I know they are trying to bait me. Of course that’s true in the real world! 100% true, fair and good! Hear Hear and Clap Clap I say! I maintain that MANY women seek out loving relationships and therefore this premise is a realistic and compelling one for the genre. That being said, I am happy to add that many contemporary romance novels INCLUDE women who pursue competitive, high powered and highly fulfilling careers (ex. HARD EVIDENCE by Pamela Clare) so there really are romance novels that suit lots of different kinds of women.

Sex. That’s the next thing someone will bring up. “Well, it’s just gratuitous sex.” As a feminist I believe very strongly that healthy sexual relationships for women should be something we care about and promote! Now, a romance novel isn’t just gratuitous sex – it’s a finely crafted piece of literature with compelling, realistic characters, a unique and engaging story and detailed world building (at least, the ones I rep and the ones I read are).

But, literary arguments aside, yes, usually sex is involved. Some novels show the sex on page (some in great detail) and some fade to black as the *moment* approaches. Whatever a person’s personal taste is fine.

I maintain that healthy sex is an important women’s issue. Raising our daughters to have a thorough, healthy, self confident, realistic and safe understanding of their sexuality is important (incidentally, raising ourselves to be healthy sexual adult women is also important and…difficult).

Addressing the way-too-prevalent scars caused by rape, incest and other molestation is an important women’s issue. And having a mouth-watering sexual relationship with one’s husband or partner should be an important women’s issue too. Sexual fulfillment is a part of sexual health, yes? There’s nothing about sex that isn’t political and our brave and luminous authors are tackling these very issues right under the noses of potential readers who would snub them for it?

CHEERS for romance authors!!!

One point I will concede is that frequently, romance novels portray men and women engaging in premarital sex. I applaud healthy consensual sex, but I agree that if this premise morally offends a person that this might be a deal breaker (although also a deal breaker for most commercial and literary fiction too). A suggestion – try inspirational romance! This subgenre is for readers who prefer their art to adhere to a stricter moral compass. See, something for everyone!

I could go on, but we all get the idea. People argue – do men read romance novels? what about those ridiculous covers? are they still just bodice rippers? etc. etc. So, I’ll close with this – above and beyond my political leanings, let’s just say – I flat out ENJOY romance novels. Not just as an agent (although they sure do sell!) and not just as a reader, but as a woman.

For the record – here are some of my favorites:

PRIVATE ARRANGEMENTS by Sherry Thomas
SCANDAL by Carolyn Jewel
PROOF BY SEDUCTION by Courtney Milan
WHAT HAPPENS IN LONDON by Julia Quinn
RIDE THE FIRE by Pamela Clare
NAKED IN DEATH by JD Robb
MOON CALLED by Patricia Briggs

What kind of reaction do you get when you tell people you read romance novels? Do you find yourself having to defend what you read?

Seducing the Duchess coverAs a big thank-you to Sara for taking the time to chat with me, I’m giving away two novels represented by the Nelson Agency. One person who leaves a comment here will receive Seducing the Duchess, the fantastic debut from Sara’s client Ashley March.

Another commenter will get their choice of either Private Arrangements by Sherry Thomas or Proof by Seduction by Courtney Milan. Let me know in your comment which you’d like, and I’ll announce the winners on Monday March 21st!

Giveaway is open internationally. You just need to live somewhere that Amazon or Book Depository delivers to.

[Update: The giveaway is now closed but feel free to keep commenting!]

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38 Comments

Filed under Thoughtfulness

38 responses to “Guest post by Sara Megibow: being a feminist romance reader

  1. This is so true; we recently brought up in class romance novels and despite the fact that it’s in every concievable genre it gets the least respect. It’s funny because as I’m reading the post I’m thinking “Huh. I said that.”

    I’d love to win Proof By Seduction.

    faefever25@hotmail.com

  2. You don’t have to enter me in the contest–just wanted to comment! Great topic, and I agree. I hate the stigma attached to romance. At the same time, I am more likely to read a romance book in public on my e-reader where I don’t have to advertise what I’m reading with a “romancey” cover. This makes me want to go out and finish my current read, cover and all, in a coffee shop!

  3. Great topic. The attitude of many of the men I know (who are not necessarily representative of the rest of the world) is that “feminist” is synonymous with militant man-hating. I quietly ignore them and know that, to me, being a “feminist” is more about wanting to live a fulfilled life without barriers based on gender. And not hating anyone who doesn’t have the same barriers.
    It’s unfortunate that the term “feminist” pigeonholes both women and men…men who might think feminists are man-haters, and women who think that we have to reject LOVE, and thinking about LOVE, and fantasizing about LOVE, in order to have a great life. Huh?

    I am a little conflicted about the whole Abs in Kilts thing on romance covers, however. It is totally objectifying, and no different than calendars with semi-nekkid girls on them…but then, I also like to look at men in kilts (or less) . That’s another post, maybe?

  4. Thanks for this post. I used to be guilty of turning my nose up at romance novels. Heck, my English Lit professors thought Amy Tan was bad enough. Then I realized I was writing romance novels. Joke on me. Jennifer Crusie’s essays revealed truths about the genre, as did reading all those questionable books for myself. Now I regret not moving from those teen romances I read in middle school to adult romance novels. I have a lot of catching up to do. All the best from the midst of my teetering TBR pile…

  5. Taylor

    2 days ago

    I haven’t gotten many “negative” comments about being a romance writer, although I think it might be because my family is in denial and think I will “live up to my potential” and write “high end” fiction. They’re supportive enough and my dad (a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist) even enjoyed what I’ve let him read of my recently completed novel.

    However, I have gotten “looks” from my mother and her *ahem* more conservative friends. I started reading romance on the sly at 13 or 14 and by the time my mom found out, it was too late to “censor” me. But she and her friends are more than a little scandalized by the more risque content that is implied by a lot of the books and their covers. They would rather read popular fiction and books that make them sound like virtuous readers (which if they actually like those books, more power to them). Recently I got my mom to read one (a Catherine Anderson), and she actually enjoyed it.

    I’m currently doing a paper on the evolution of the romance novel, so I’ve been reading a lot about criticism within the genre. According to Pamela Regis, most of it stems from misunderstandings and generalizations started by late Second Wave Feminist critics and non-genre readers. If people would take the time to read more than one purple prose filled book from 1980, they might realize what the genre has evolved into- a powerful industry where women can be heard and understood by other women, where issues like sexuality aren’t a source of scandal, but a source of power.

  6. I get mixed responses when I tell people I read romances, where I really get negative responses is when I admit that I write romance as well. I get comments about my intelligence and education being poor or as one guy I dated said, ‘frivolous’, I hear comments about porn, cheap, escapism and my reaction – I find out what people read and point out there is a little romance in just about every book, in a die hard thriller, isn’t the killer in love with the victim, or a legal drama isn’t there a flicker of attraction between the attorneys, Love, attraction, romance, sex, they are in just about every book because they are such a prominent part of our lives. I live it proud and loud – I love romance books! 🙂

  7. Great post, Sara and Kat! I whole-heartedly agree (not that you didn’t already know that, lol.)

    I definitely get the snobbery and even more so I think because I write (and read) *gasp* erotic romance. And *eek* my heroine is submissive in the bedroom. So double whammy on the feminist thing. But you know what? I consider my heroine a feminist. She’s tough, is a survivor of some pretty horrific things, and is strong enough to claim her own sexuality.

    I’m proud of what I write and read and refuse to be embarrassed about writing strong women who want to fall in love and who happen to enjoy sex. And really what you’ll find is that the people who are most vocal about the “silliness” or “vapidness” of romance are the very ones who have never read one. Like when people find out I write eroRom and I get the “oh my” eyebrows, I really just want to hand them a well-written book and say, “Here, read this, then judge me.” I bet they’d change their mind once they realize what these books are and more importantly, what they aren’t.

  8. Oh, and don’t enter me in the contest. I already have all those books. *grin*

  9. I admit that I used to “pooh pooh” my mother’s love of Harlequin Romance. I was also horrified by the “graphic” sex scene in “Ice Pirates” with the artificial storm brewing in the background! That’s rather tame compared to much of what we see and read today.
    After I was married and we discovered that getting pregnant was not going to be as easy as everyone said, I went on fertility drugs, and suddenly I couldn’t get enough of the Romance genre. They were like candy for me; I needed to know that they would end up with a happily ever after in the end. And the sex scenes that used to embarrass me were rarely gratuitous; they were an integral part of the romance. And they helped me through many a hormonal night!
    The fertility drugs are long gone now, and my baby is three years old. But I’m hooked on the genre, and have started writing SyFy romance of my own!

  10. Wonderful post. I use to hide my romance books. Not anymore. (except from my mom. She’s a bit of a prude. ) I devoure historicals like crazy. Now I even write reviews for them at MyShelf.com . My, how times have changed. LOL

    Thank you for the giveaway!!
    qladyhawke at gmail dot com

  11. Maire Creegan

    I completely concur about sexual relationships. I remember being in college and a friend came to me ( I was still a virgin *gasp*) And she told me about this sexual experience she’d had with a guy that was soooo selfish on his part. I kept thinking on sex in romance novels where the woman is always fulfilled and just thought she’d been completely wronged. I’ve learned from reading romance that a woman deserves to be sexually fulfilled, that it is not all about the guy. And I LOVE that romance promotes independence in women and a very healthy sexual appetite!

    On a side note, I’m also a feminist, participating in V-Day, The Vagina monologues and multiple women’s studies courses. Loving romance and being a feminist are completely compatible.

  12. Great post! Yes, I think romance novels cover the same issues as any other genre, and the formula only comes in to play with the guaranteed happy ending. Um, okay, why is that bad? 🙂

    (I already have Courtney’s book but not the others.)

  13. Sheila

    I don’t worry about what people say or think about what I read. I read the gamut of genres but I love reading romance best. I like that they protray women today as being strong and independent. I like the sex in them. I like the happy endings. I like that I can read them quickly and they are a welcome break between heavy duty fiction and non-fiction books. They are also well-written and well researched. People need to stop being snobs and try something new. They’ll be surprised how much they like romance.

    I’d like Proof by Seduction, please.

    smg5775@yahoo.com

  14. Hear, hear!

    I believe that showing consensual sex between two willing partners who love one another, but aren’t necessarily married, is just as powerful as other lessons to be had in life.

  15. Fantastic post.

    I come from a very literary family, and yes, there is that brief look of confusion when they realise that I read and write romance. Because my family are lovely, they’re all very polite about it, but I am always left with the impression that they just don’t understand it. Probably because they’ve never read any.

    Misconceptions about romantic fiction abound – I’ve had people tell me that they must be easy to write because you just follow a formula, or that I shouldn’t waste my time with romance, I should write proper books.

    To my mind, stories that present women making their own choices (whatever they are) finding the life they love (whatever that is) and being fulfilled (in whatever way they need) are some of the most important ones to write. And what is more feminist than that, anyway?

  16. That was a good post, and I couldn’t help but smile and snort in recognition. My usual response to why was, “Because I like to read it.” Something has changed though, or maybe my powers of eye/facial disapproval (I am a grandmother) have increased, but after explaining I write historical fantasy romance, I no longer see raised brows or smirks. Perhaps I’m hanging around a more open minded crowd?
    As for the book, if i win, let it be a surprise, please!

  17. I recently joined the Harlequin Ambassador’s Program and received five copies of the same romantic suspense to distribute to my friends. That night, I happened to have my weekly screenwriting class and thought, “I’ll give the books to the women there.”

    When I handed them pristine copies of, “Smokin’ Six Shooter,” they feigned disinterest, while ogling the well-defined pectoral muscles of the cover-model. He was, indeed, smokin’ hot. If you like that sort of thing.

    Turns out they did, because they each took him home with them for further inspection.

  18. I’m a proud romance writer. If we aren’t proud of our genre, then we won’t change the perceptions of the Joe Blog public. When I worked at NZ Post as the Marketing Manager I wore my company access swipe card around my neck on my RWNZ conference pink ribbon. Everyone in the company knew I wrote romance.

    I have to say that here in NZ I get a very positive reaction. ‘Wow that’s fantastic, how did you get into that?” I’ve never had any women friends tell me it is not-PC to write romance. I found that an interesting take.

    Men are completely enthralled by the idea of me writing Regency Historicals – their words are always ‘you write bodice rippers’ and they want to read it – they like the sex. But they understand the finance of the business as well and are impressed at the size of the market. Secretly I believe they love a good romance just as much as women.

    Women tend to be more split. Half are thrilled and can’t wait to read my book, half sort of turn their noses up, until I tell them what the romance genre is worth in dollars! Then they are more interested. It’s almost gosh – what am I missing. My friend, who had never read a romance novel, read my debut book Invitation to Ruin and rang me half way through the book to exclaim that she couldn’t believe how much she was enjoying it. I love a convert.

  19. vicki leondas

    When I told my ‘reading group’ friends I’d started writing they assumed it would be romance because we’ve discussed/shared those books etc for years. Living remotely without a nearby bookshop or library made it tough to get books until amazon and electronic books hit our email boxes.
    My family showed support while hiding giggles. Hubby calls the genre ‘dizzies’ and said go for it, just don’t start dressing like a romance author when out in the sheep paddock. I haven’t had a bad reaction to it at all although l can sympathise with poor Ms Megibow being out with the general public and having to defend the genre in a way nobody else has to.
    Does anyone get called on reading about murder over and over or all the blood/guts horror genre? What about all the younger people having sexual fantasies involving part animals or half-dead blood-suckers? Is that more normal for people to be filling in their fun time with? If anything, romance and relationship stories in general shouldn’t need justification or defending. .

  20. Maura

    Excellent post!

    I was once having a very pleasant conversation with a woman at a poetry reading one evening. I told her I was a writer and of course she asked what I was writing. I said ‘romance’ and she actually shuddered, mumbled something like “oh no, I never read those,” and turned her back on me and walked away. I was shocked. I knew romance had an undeserved bad rep, but no one had ever been so blatantly rude to me before – usually people I meet are impressed that I am a writer (so many people say they want to do it) and they don’t seem to care about genre. So I guess I’ve been lucky most of the time. The worst I’d ever experienced before that episode was people doing a little good natured teasing when I said I read and write romances.

    All the books in the raffle look so good. Of the three, I think I’m leaning slightly towards Seducing the Duchess.

  21. Great post!

    Sometimes I wonder if romance (and erotica) aren’t respected purely because they are considered women’s books. Nearly every other genre (sci-fi, fantasy, detective novels, literary fiction, etc.) are presumed to have a significant male following.

    When I tell people that I write erotic fiction, most of the women respond with interest, the majority of the men act embarrassed, and occasionally the opposite occurs. The age of the person I’m speaking to may make a difference (older men are nearly always uncomfortable). I might not go into the nitty-gritty about what I write, but I’ve never been shy about telling people what genre I write.

    All the books in the raffle look great. I already have the Courtney Milan though 🙂

  22. linda

    I have to admit to being a bit embarrassed to reading & loving! romance books and especially since my fav genres are Fantasy Romance & Historical Romance. My friends are always teasing me about it saying it’s so unreal which is probably why I like it so much. If I wanted something “real” I’d go read the newspapers.

    I’d love a copy of Ashley March’s book.

  23. Lynn Cahoon

    I love this post and this discussion. I was reading John Gardner’s book on writing fiction when he talks about not being too emotional like in those women’s books (a terrible paraphrase.) I was stirring rissoto at the time and about threw the book across the kitchen.
    I consider myself a feminist AND I like happy endings. So sue me. I write romance.

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  25. This is a great post. Despite really enjoying romances, and being in the process of writing one, I have noticed that I do sometimes tend to mentally disparage them myself – such as with my instinctive reaction to seeing Moon Called on your list (“That’s not romance!” I thought. “That’s Sci-fi!”) or my irritation at seeing the Poison Study books reshelved as romance. (Admittedly that was partially because I was frustrated from spending 25 minutes looking for book two in Sci-Fi after I had been assured it was in the store.) Consciously, I think that romance books are as diverse in quality as any other genre, but there is a part of me that still hears my mother’s voice saying “You read so many good books, why would you waste your time reading that?” whenever I pick up a romance. They often feel like a guilty pleasure, instead of just a pleasure.

  26. I read for an escape. I read romance because it makes me happy. I write romance because it’s what I love to read.

    The next time I catch myself apologizing for my tastes I will stop and think about your post. Thank you!

  27. You know, the more I hang out online among writing and reading types, the more I realize I’m not alone. I’m a closet romance reader. Even typing that makes me feel uncomfortable, because my mom would disapprove, and my husband would make fun of me, and I have an English degree so I should know better…

    Before I started writing fiction for publication, I wrote romance. I never even considered writing it for other people, though. My public genre was a toss-up between mystery, historical, and fantasy; I went with fantasy. And yet I find myself censoring my work, trying to keep it from being romance-focused.

    Should I give in? I don’t know. But thanks for posting this! It gave me food for thought and helped me feel less guilty about a being a feminist romance reader 😉

  28. Sara, I love your one-sentence statement. Here’s mine: “I love romance novels, because as a feminist with engineerings degrees, I find the genre to be inherently of hope and pro-woman.”

  29. Galena

    Amen! I’m a feminist and I love romance novels. I don’t see why those should be considered mutually exclusive.

  30. When I told my husband I’d been working on a novel and really wanted to be a writer, he asked me what I was writing. I said, “Romance.” He said, “What? Why? You’re too smart for that stuff.”

    I wanted to choke him. For one, he clearly hadn’t been paying much attention to what I was reading. For another, I can think of very few stories that don’t have a romance as a strong part of the story. And, like others, it just made sense to me to write what I love reading.

    Great post!

  31. Terrific post. My favourite soap box topic! See my What is it About Romance? essay under IDEAS TO PONDER on my webpage macwriter dot wordpress dot com for more thoughts on the subject.

    I haven’t had a great deal of negative feedback to reading romances, but people are generally polite. Not my brother though, who is one of those in my family who I trade books and reading suggestions with. We both have eclectic taste. However, once he returned a pile of (various genre) books to me with the comment, “I can’t believe you read that junk!” I’m pretty sure he was referring to the romantic ones. I’m also pretty sure he’s never read one. I also have to confess that, though I went through a big historical romance phase when I was younger, I got away from it for many years, thinking it was beneath me, while I was busy with university and my professional and academic careers. However, I now read a huge amount of romance of all kinds (historicals, contemporaries, SF, fantasy, suspense, paranormal – what other genre is so broad and inclusive? so bendable?) as well as other literary and genre works. I still worry that my romance selections will be frowned upon by those inclined to judge, and admit the fantasy covers bother me and misrepresent the content, and also contribute to the negative stereotyping of the genre in a big way. So I sometimes hide the fact that I read a lot of romance, while flaunting my SF or literary titles. I’ve also shied away from labeling what I write as romance, though I do think it genuinely fits the Romantic Women’s Fiction genre best. What hypocracy! Yet, the negative perception persists. I’m all for pulling romance out of the past and reinventing it in the public eye. We do, after all, have the market sown up. Here’s to more open discussion about it amongst enlightened and educated feminists of both genders!

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